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Employers Look to Fill Seasonal Jobs, Advocates Look to Protect Workers in US

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Toribio Jimenez lies on his bed in his basement bedroom of the home where he and 10 other people live in Nashville, Tenn, Sept. 3, 2009. Jimenez was given a job removing asbestos in the U.S. through the H2-B nonagricultural guest worker program. The job was not the job that was promised to him through the program, and after being fired, Jimenez said he now has no option but to work illegally so he can pay back the money he borrowed to make the trip to the U.S. VOA

You may have noticed: Much of the recent anti-immigration rhetoric in Washington most loudly comes from factions on the political right: H1B, H2B, it’s all about protecting American jobs.

But every step of the way, progressive groups — while pro-immigrant — are just as critical of foreign worker visas. Federal regulations on the books, they argue, are inherently insufficient to protect visa holders from abuse, whether through unwarranted recruitment fees, misrepresentation of job requirements, fraud or intimidation.

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The issue plagues potential recruits, but also well-meaning businesses that can’t find enough Americans willing to take seasonal jobs. In Cape Cod, Massachusetts and other areas of the country whose economic models are centered on five-to-six-month tourist seasons, the work of H2B visa-holders becomes essential to business owners.

Tyler Hayes, vice president of Cape Cod Restaurants, says his seasonal businesses — including Flying Bride Restaurant, shown here in April — would suffer without H-2B workers. After 20 years in the business, he says the children of foreign workers have begun to work for them. (R. Taylor/VOA)

Employers worry, too

Tyler Hayes, vice president of Cape Cod Restaurants, says he is fortunate that his seasonal foreign workforce, mainly from Jamaica, has created a “family atmosphere” during his 20-year tenure with the company.

“Now, their children are coming in, working for us,” Hayes said.

But while Hayes can only point to the well-being of his own workforce, he acknowledges that at least in recent years, abuse of workers has not been inconceivable.

“There used to be these companies that would send out these big petitions,” Hayes recalled. “They bring in 100 or 200 people, get them in the country and then farm them out.”

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In response, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cracked down on abuse within the H2B system in 2015, both in order to prevent the exploitation of workers and to ensure U.S. workers’ awareness of available jobs.

Are regulations enough?

Elizabeth Mauldin, policy director at Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM) — the Center for Migrant Rights — calls those protections basic, including the right to receive a contract before entering the U.S. and protection from being charged a recruitment fee.

But many aspects of those existing regulations, she argues, are difficult to ensure, absent greater transparency in the recruitment process.

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“It’s impossible to enforce a ban on charging workers fees,” Mauldin told VOA. “When workers are charged fees upfront, they are vulnerable to the same type of economic coercion across the board.” As a result, she notes, foreign workers become susceptible to wage theft and other abuses, regardless of their visa category.

Afraid to report

A 2013 report issued by CDM, whose findings were based on a survey and in-depth interviews with hundreds of H2B workers, found that 58 percent of respondents reported paying illegal recruitment fees, while 10 percent reported recruitment fraud — having paid a fee for a nonexistent job.

While there are mechanisms in place for foreign workers to report abuse, Mauldin argues that the disincentives are often too great.

“[Abusive employers] will say, at the end of the season, ‘If you pay those fees, then we will be more likely to recruit you in the future,’ or ‘If you don’t report these violations, then our recruiter will choose you again next year,’” Mauldin said.

Jane Nichols Bishop, who goes by the nickname “Mama Visa,” helps local companies secure annual H2B visas. “I like to joke and say we have more great white sharks than I have workers looking for a job on Cape Cod,” she says. VOA

Jane Nichols Bishop, founder and president of Peak Season Workforce, a family-run company that helps Cape Cod-area businesses secure H2B visas, says the mechanisms in place to prevent exploitation, including audits by the Department of Labor, have largely worked. But in cases where they do not, she says it’s in everyone’s interest that the infractions are reported.

“If there are abuses, we would like to see them caught,” Nichols said. “They give everyone who does this and who works at this very successfully a very bad name.”

Workers empower themselves

Despite ongoing reports of abuse nationwide, there is some hope for affected foreigners outside of federal regulations, thanks to the internet. A bilingual workers’ rights initiative, which Mauldin calls the Yelp for migrant workers, allows workers to review recruiters and share their experiences, and create a self-empowering community in the process. (VOA)

Next Story

Measles Outbreak Confirmed In The U.S. Pacific Northwest

Before the vaccine was introduced in 1963, the disease was blamed for an estimated 400 to 500 deaths and 48,000 hospitalizations each year, according to the CDC.

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A 1-year-old child is given the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine in Northridge, Calif., Jan. 29, 2015. VOA

Officials in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington have declared a measles outbreak after at least 22 people, including 20 children, have become infected with the disease since Jan. 1.

“It’s an outbreak because generally the way we define an outbreak is when you have more observed cases than expected cases. And generally with measles, the expected number is zero,” Dr. Alan Melnick with Clark County Public Health told KOIN6 TV in Portland, Oregon, last week. “You know, we have a very effective vaccine for measles. Two shots are 97 percent effective. We really shouldn’t be seeing measles.”

The outbreak comes on the heels of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) releasing data for 2018 earlier this month. The CDC said the 349 reported cases in 26 states and the District of Columbia made 2018 the second worse year for measles since 2000, when the disease was eliminated in the U.S. It said 2014 was the worst year, with a reported 667 cases.

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A nurse holds a vial of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine at Boston Children’s Hospital in Boston, Feb. 26, 2015. VOA

The report said some of the cases were related to unvaccinated people in Orthodox Jewish communities, as well as travelers who became infected after visiting Israel, Italy, France and Britain, where major outbreaks are occurring. According to the CDC, an outbreak is defined as three or more linked cases.

The report also said 81 of the 349 cases were in people who traveled to the United States from other countries.

Clark County officials said a person infected with measles attended a Portland Trail Blazers National Basketball Association (NBA) game last week in Portland, Oregon, and contagious people visited other venues, such as the Portland airport, and local hospitals, stores and restaurants. Clark County is about a half-hour from Portland, causing officials to worry the disease may spread across the two-state region.

Global increases

Eighteen states, including Oregon and Washington, allow families to opt out of vaccines based on philosophical beliefs.

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A health worker vaccinates a toddler against measles in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. VOA

While considered eliminated in the U.S., measles is common in other parts of the world, specifically Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa, according to world health officials.

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) also reported significant increases in cases from various countries in 2018.

Also Read: Women Hit Especially Hard In Congo’s Worst Ebola Outbreak

Measles is a highly contagious viral illness that was thought to have been eradicated in the United States in 2000. Its symptoms, which include fever, runny nose and a skin rash, appear about 10 to 14 days after exposure to the virus. The infection occurs in stages over a period of two to three weeks, the CDC reports.

Before the vaccine was introduced in 1963, the disease was blamed for an estimated 400 to 500 deaths and 48,000 hospitalizations each year, according to the CDC. (VOA)